Tom Price’s resignation: The blurred lines between news reporting and opinion
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Tom Price’s resignation: The blurred lines between news reporting and opinion

October 1, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Tom Price resigns as US Secretary of Health and Human Services

On Friday, Tom Price resigned from his position as U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services. The White House said President Donald Trump accepted Price’s resignation and would designate Don J. Wright to serve as acting secretary. Wright is currently Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health and the Director of the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.

Between Sept. 19 and 29, Politico published five articles reporting that Price used 17 private charter flights during his role as secretary. The articles also estimated the cost of these flights at over $1 million. Other media outlets published articles on the subject, and cable news also reported the story, according to Politico.

Price, formerly a physician and Republican congressman from Georgia, said in his resignation letter, “I have spent 40 years both as a doctor and public servant putting people first. I regret that the recent events have created a distraction from these important objectives. Success on these issues is more important than any one person. In order for you to move forward without further disruption, I am officially tendering my resignation.” Neither Price’s letter nor the White House’s statement about the resignation cited a reason for his decision to vacate the position.

Distortion Highlights

  • The more opinion and distortion seep into news reporting, the more articles read like opinion pieces.
  • When analyzing the news of Price’s resignation, we found the line between fact and opinion was blurred more than usual.
  • Test your discernment skills below, and pick up a few useful tips on how to tell these two things apart.

Show Me Everything

The Numbers

See how the articles rate in spin, slant and logic when held against objective standards.

View Technical Sheet >

The Distortion

The Knife’s analysis of how news outlets distort information. (This section may contain opinion)

Top Spin Words

  • Omen

    Being called a ‘good man’ by Trump is sometimes an omen (AP)

  • Kiss of Death

    Not long after, Trump spoke with reporters on a rainy tarmac, where he repeated his “good man” kiss of death. (AP)

    Ultimately those bad headlines — and bad lower thirds — were the kiss of death for Price. (CNN)

  • Growing firestorm

    By early this week, however, it became clear that the growing firestorm over Price’s travel was only getting worse. (Politico)

  • Ultimately Doomed

    Price’s lack of goodwill with Trump and other senior administration officials ultimately doomed his chances of survival, even though many administration officials believed the furor would blow over when news first broke that Price spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on private jets. (Politico)

    The private jet scandal ultimately doomed the HHS secretary, but Trump’s faith in Price waned months ago.(Politico)

  • Tombstone

    “Reince Priebus, a good man,” Trump repeated, sounding like a tombstone engraving. (AP)

  • Scandal

    How much of the reason for Price’s exit comes from Column A and how much comes from Column B is an open question, but word is leaking out that Trump’s frustration with Price did indeed predate the private-travel scandal. (The Washington Post)

    Other media outlets amplified the revelations, with cable news frequently running damaging chyrons and reporters peppering Trump and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders about the growing scandal throughout the week. (Politico)

    And the private-travel scandal allows the White House to argue that this wasn’t about the health-care failure, but rather about Price’s personal foibles. (The Washington Post)

    While the White House has weathered a steady stream of mini-scandals since Trump took office, this one was different, according to administration officials, because it made Price look like the kind of creature of Washington that the president had railed against on the campaign trail. (Politico)

  • Lose trust

    But his demise was months in the making, as the president continued to lose trust in the Health and Human Services secretary who rarely attended Oval Office strategy meetings, had little sway or influence on Capitol Hill, and was associated in the president’s mind with one of the administration’s biggest defeats — the failure to repeal Obamacare. (Politico)

  • Cardinal rule

    Tom Price broke Trump’s cardinal rule: Never get bad headlines for the boss (CNN)

  • Greatest Sin

    If another official gets a pass where Price didn’t, that would be a pretty good indicator of Price’s greatest sin. (The Washington Post)

When researching the media’s coverage of Tom Price’s resignation, it was hard to distinguish between news articles and opinion pieces strictly by their content. So we pulled together and compared two news articles from some of the most prominent news outlets in the country against two that were marked as op-eds or analyses.

The real revelation came with our ratings, which showed both news articles’ scores were within 2 and 4 points of the analysis piece, in terms of overall integrity (the op-ed scored lower). One of the news articles also scored the highest spin rating overall, and the two news articles were more biased than the two opinion pieces!

Now, can you tell them apart?

  1. Which of these headlines is from a news report?

A. Trump’s breaking point with Price

B. Tom Price gave Trump a great excuse to fire him

C. Being called a ‘good man’ by Trump is sometimes an omen

If you had a hard time figuring out which is which, it may suggest that we don’t know what a real news headline is supposed to look like anymore. If you guessed A and C, you’re correct! A is Politico’s news article, and C is The Associated Press’. B’s headline is from The Washington Post’s analysis.

  1. Which of these lead sentences is from a news report?

A. Sometimes it’s better not to be a nice guy.

B. Tom Price’s downfall was his penchant for pricey jets.

C. Less than an hour before Donald Trump accepted the resignation of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, the President made very clear why his Cabinet secretary was being let go.

In the best case, an article’s lead sentence provides the news in a nutshell. Are you surprised that the answer to question 2 is both A and B (AP and Politico, respectively)? These examples show that factual news itself doesn’t always make the lead. Option C is from CNN’s op-ed, and although there is opinion, there’s at least the fact that Price resigned from his position.

More and more, journalism blurs the line between fact and opinion to the point where the two are indistinguishable. And opinions are valuable, but it’s problematic when they’re not owned as such and presented as fact instead. As readers, if we’re not able to tell the difference, it literally blurs the line between what may be true for one person or a few, versus what’s testable and verifiable objectively.

How do you spot opinions? One telltale sign is spin — look for words or phrases that are dramatic, vague, ambiguous, imprecise or subjective (meaning, they’re subject to personal interpretation and aren’t objectively measurable). Another way is to look for logical fallacies and speculation, because as far as we know, no human has mastered predicting the future. And another way is to check your gut: what impression are you left with after reading an article? In most cases, the answer is the outlet’s bias.

The better you become at identifying these mechanisms, the less opinion can limit the way you think and make decisions. Identifying opinions teaches us about others’ thinking and perspectives, helping to differentiate our own. It also sharpens our ability to approach information critically and question facts directly. Really, there are only upsides to increasing this skill — at least in our opinion.

Want extra credit? Test your skills with this last test

Is it fact or fiction? Which outlet presents the most spin?

  • 59% Spun

  • 76% Spun

  • 80% Spun

  • 82% Spun

Fiction
or
Fact

Politico

“He soon became a bit player in the administration.”

No facts here.

Fact Comparison

  • Facts in only 1 source
  • Facts in 2 sources
  • Facts in 3 sources
  • Facts in all sources

Trump said, seemingly as a joke, at a rally in July that he would fire Price if he didn’t get the votes for an Affordable Care Act repeal. A repeal of the Affordable Care Act has not been passed during the Trump presidency. (Politico, The Washington Post)


AP and CNN don’t mention Price was to garner votes for the GOP’s repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which did not succeed. Including this information suggests other possible reasons for Price’s resignation, since no precise reason for was given in his resignation letter or the White House’s announcement about it.

All cabinet travel requests now must be cleared by the White House. (Missing in all outlets)


The outlets we analyzed suggest the information about Price’s travel expenses could lead to other similar cases involving government officials. It might be helpful for readers to know at least one measure the White House has taken towards improved accountability, which The New York Times, a fifth source we analyzed, reported.

 

Headlines

An article’s headline can direct how the news is understood. Compare and contrast how different outlets present the story through their headlines.

Spreads superstition that Trump’s compliments can be a sign of bad things to come, whatever those may be.

This suggests there’s a connection between Trump’s compliments about someone and undesirable things happening to that person. Unless AP can prove causation, this is superstition, not news.

Dramatizes the situation around Price.

To say Price was “drawing ire” is subjective and vague. The Times could give the facts about Price’s chartered flights or the statements in his resignation.

Misrepresents what reportedly happened.

Price resigned and Trump accepted, which is not the same as being “fired” or “axed.”

Balance

Get the full picture! Don’t buy into cherry-picked information.

The media’s slant:
  • Price quit, was “fired” or “let go” because Trump was “intensely frustrated,” implying he left his post against his wish.
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • No data or conversations between Trump and Price have been reported to the public on the subject of Price’s travel expenses, although we know that at least one private meeting took place between the men before the resignation Friday. We don’t know what agreement or arrangement may have been reached.